There’s art in them thar hills
TROUBLEMAKERS:THE STORYOFLANDART Directed by James Crump. Featuring Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt. Club, IFI members, 71min Shots of Stonehenge suggest there is nothing new about what is alternately described as Land Art, Dirt Art or Earth Art. Artist Carl Andre concurs: “Earthworks are an older tradition than oil painting, going back 3,000 years”. There are hints too of the Dadaist Duchamp, whose plastic arts often required a bird’s eye view.
Yet James Crump’s compelling chronicle begins, as did so many other movements, in the countercultural currents of anti-Vietnam War sentiment. Determined to break away from galleries and the trappings of civilisation, a group of conceptual artists left New York in the late 1960s and headed for the hills. And canyons. And deserts.
They would forge work that, as Land Art practitioner Michael Heizer notes, was “not portable, not malleable, not worth anything; in fact it’s an obligation”.
In this spirit, Heizer’s own Double Negative cut a geometric incision across a canyon, a trough that displaced some 240,000 tonnes of rock; Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels placed four massive concrete tunnels in the Great Basin Desert; her husband Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty unfurled 500m of basalt and mud into a pleasing curlicue in the Great Salt Lake.
Rather appropriately, James Crump’s lively documentary allows its material to ebb and flow. The film-maker’s careful curation and beautiful assembly of archive footage, and on-camera testimony simultaneously allow for depth and brevity, as various practitioners touch on environmental concerns, nomadism and isolation. It helps that the contributors are passionate and articulate, particularly the late Smithson, who, it transpires, was a remarkable prose writer.
Many of the movement’s greatest works were created in far-flung, hard-to-find places. The inconvenience was deliberate. The goal was something akin to pilgrimage and religious awe. The terra incognita beneath the installations ensure much of what we see is a revelation. Despite the short running time, there’s much to see here.